UK govt publishes N.Ireland deal aimed at ending deadlock

Northern Ireland's devolved assembly has been suspended for nearly two years (Paul Faith)
Northern Ireland's devolved assembly has been suspended for nearly two years (Paul Faith)

The United Kingdom government on Wednesday outlined its proposals to get the Northern Ireland assembly back up and running after a political deadlock of nearly two years caused by divisions over post-Brexit trade rules.

London published the deal it has struck with the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that could see the devolved government in the British province restored in the coming days.

"This is the right deal for Northern Ireland and the right deal for the union," Chris Heaton-Harris, Northern Ireland Secretary in the UK government, told reporters as he visited Belfast.

The DUP walked out of the power-sharing government at Stormont in February 2022 to protest post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, which has the UK's only land border with the European Union.

The agreement would notably remove checks on goods shipped from mainland Great Britain -- England, Scotland and Wales -- to final destinations in Northern Ireland.

That would effectively scrap the contentious so-called Irish Sea border that had angered unionists who feared it would cut Northern Ireland adrift from the three other UK nations and make a united Ireland more likely.

A key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence over British rule in Northern Ireland, was to keep an open border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, to the south.

But the 2016 Brexit vote caused a problem -- how to protect the European single market and customs union if the UK was no longer part of it, when there was effectively an open back door for goods to cross in and out via Northern Ireland.

The post-Brexit trading arrangements signed between London and Brussels sought to square that circle by introducing goods checks from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and partly keeping the British province under EU rules.

- 'Support' -

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said that his party's members had voted to approve the new agreement, which removed the "border within the UK internal market".

"We are being inundated, flooded, with messages of support from unionists right across Northern Ireland," he said at the press conference flanking Heaton-Harris.

"I think these proposals are more than capable of selling themselves."

Earlier, Heaton-Harris told the UK parliament that under the deal, "the idea of automatic dynamic alignment with EU law will no longer apply".

"We will also future-proof Northern Ireland's position within the UK internal market against any future protocol that would create a new EU law alignment for Northern Ireland and with it barriers for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom," he added.

The deal appears to represent a change to the Windsor Framework agreement signed between the UK and European Union in February 2023, which kept Northern Ireland inside the EU's single market for goods.

If so, it is believed the changes would need to be approved by Brussels.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic told British Foreign Secretary David Cameron in a phone call Wednesday that the bloc's leadership "will analyse carefully the texts published today".

The pair "agreed on the high importance of seeing the Northern Ireland Executive restored and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland," they added in a joint statement.

Downing Street says the deal contains "significant" changes to the framework's "operation", but is not about altering the "fundamentals" of the framework.

The UK parliament is expected to vote through the legislation on Thursday, paving the way for the DUP and the nationalist pro-Irish Sinn Fein to elect a speaker and restore power-sharing, possibly on Saturday.